CHECHENS DON’T LIGHTLY CURSE.

I’m always fascinated by the differentiated use of languages in multilingual situations (see this post for a great example from Madagascar), and I’ve run across one in my current reading, Anatol Lieven’s superb examination of the reasons for Russia’s disastrous loss in the First Chechen War, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power. Lieven is discussing dedovshchina (literally ‘granddadism’), the brutal hazing endemic to the Russian army at least since WWII, and he quotes a Chechen who as a young conscript spent time in the Soviet army in East Germany in the early ’80s:

The ‘granddads’ forced the younger soldiers to buy useless things from them, hand over all their pay—and 20 marks a month was all we got. One young soldier in my squad had had to give most of his pay for a broken clock. I took it to the ‘granddad’, asked him, ‘Why did you sell him this?’ He cursed me. Now we Chechens don’t lightly curse each other—for us, this is a serious business. I broke the clock over his head. I got another three days in the cooler for that…

The footnote on this passage includes this illuminating remark:

Incidentally, it is not quite true that Chechens do not use the Russian expression, ‘xxxx your mother!’ when speaking to each other; but they only do so when speaking in Russian—in which language, among Russian men (thanks partly to generations of military service), it has become so common under Soviet rule as to lose all meaning. Spoken in Chechen, I was told, this would indeed be a killing matter.

Comments

  1. Do Chechens ever say ‘xxxx you and xxxx the horse you rode in on’? And would it be a killing matter?

  2. “Anatol Lieven’s superb examination of the *reason’s* for Russia’s disastrous loss”
    Tsk, tsk! And a professional editor too! Good job we’re not prescriptivists here…

  3. rootlesscosmo says:

    The linked post (about Madagascar) reminded me of a scene in the film “A Dry White Season.” Zakes Mokae, as a Black South African lawyer in the apartheid era, has gone to a police station to plead for a prisoner’s release. The policeman addresses him brusquely in Afrikaans-accented English. The lawyer (whose fluency in English has already been established) addresses him in Afrikaans “motherese”–”Nie baasje, nie baasje”–pretty clearly because he knows using English would mark him as “cheeky” while a placating tone in Afrikaans identifies him with the policeman’s memory of a Black nanny who could “get round him” by soothing his touchy vanity.

  4. Tsk, tsk!
    Indeed! Obviously the surrounding apostrophes collaborated to infiltrate one of their kind where it did not belong. I’ll perform the extraction now. Thanks!

  5. That little fellow was merely enjoying a youthful apotrophrolic. You’re a cruel warder, Mr. Hat.

  6. (‘Apostrophrolic’, of course. Damn.)

  7. David Marjanović says:

    Do Chechens ever say ‘xxxx you and xxxx the horse you rode in on’?

    AFAIK only Americans do that.

    And would it be a killing matter?

    Shoot first, ask questions later…

  8. AFAIK only Americans do that.
    And, for that matter, generally (but not always) without the second ‘xxxx’ in my experience. Google suggests as much as well, at something like 50:1 for hits on the one-xxxx variant vs the two-xxxx.

  9. Incidentally, it is not quite true that Chechens do not use the Russian expression, ‘xxxx your mother!’ when speaking to each other; but they only do so when speaking in Russian—in which language, among Russian men (thanks partly to generations of military service), it has become so common under Soviet rule as to lose all meaning. Spoken in Chechen, I was told, this would indeed be a killing matter.
    Is it really true that this expression lost its offensive power among Russians only in Soviet times? As a Croatian speaker, I can confirm that in the Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian speaking areas, swearphrases like this one, often nearly identical to the analogous Russian ones, are often used among men in totally harmless contexts to express mild annoyance or even as simple interjections. In some contexts, among good friends, they can even be thrown in to give one’s speech a tone of warm cordiality. To the best of my knowledge, the situation had been like that long before the last two or three generations, and some of the oldest people I’ve known in my life used such expressions copiously (my own grandparents included :-)). I’d be surprised if the situation was different among Russians before the Soviet times. I also find it questionable if Russian men are really exposed to swearing in the army that much more than in the rest of their lives (one of my grandmothers swears more than many Croatian young men :-)).
    As a curious side note, most readers here are probably aware of how much more extreme and offensive Slavic swearing tends to sound when literally translated into English. However, an interesting example is the BCS word kopile “bastard”, which is a far more severe and serious insult in BCS than its literal translation in English. I don’t think I’ve ever used it even to refer to someone in the third person, let alone dared to say it in someone’s face — and with some of my Croatian friends, it’s quite normal to exchange phrases such as j**em ti mater “I f**k your mother” jokingly and in good humor, just like in English one might jokingly say “you bastard” to a friend without intending any insult. To make things truly hilarious, this same word is the standard and usual word for “child” in Romanian (spelled copil) — unfortunately, I don’t know about its etymology and the direction of the borrowing. :-)

  10. copil: possibly Dacian.

  11. Arthur Crown says:

    Ivan, do you have any idea why kopile/bastard, in particular, remains unusable in BCS? Are there any signs that it might become acceptable (eg. do kids use it amongst themselves in the school playground)?

  12. Ivan, do you have any idea why kopile/bastard, in particular, remains unusable in BCS? Are there any signs that it might become acceptable (eg. do kids use it amongst themselves in the school playground)?
    No, the word is nowadays used rarely and, in my experience, mainly among older generations, so it might in fact be on its way out altogether. Just like English “bastard”, it’s no longer used in any non-insulting contexts, and its serious use with its original literal meaning would be considered as too cruel and insulting even among most people who are highly judgmental, prudish, and traditionalist in family-related matters. However, unlike “bastard”, which has become a widespread and fairly mild swearword that can be thrown around jokingly among friends, “kopile” has remained a rarely used word that can’t be uttered except as a grave insult.
    Frankly, I have no idea why this word never lost any of its insulting power. It’s not like gross insults towards family are otherwise a taboo among South Slavs; many of our swearwords that you’ll hear on every corner routinely mix gross sexual profanity with mentions of people’s close family members (and often also animals, god, saints, and various seemingly random entities :-)).

  13. Crown, A. says:

    I keep misreading the title of this piece as Chickens Don’t Lightly Curse, and it’s true. Our hens all have a stoical and serene nature. They would not curse at all.

  14. And, for that matter, generally (but not always) without the second ‘xxxx’ in my experience. Google suggests as much as well, at something like 50:1 for hits on the one-xxxx variant vs the two-xxxx.
    And, of course, we sometimes say fuck in place of ‘xxxx’.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    BCSM, please. Montenegrin is now a language, too!

  16. Sort of. “Montenegrin” is the name of the national language of Montenegro, but the national language of Montenegro is still Serbian.

  17. Sort of. “Montenegrin” is the name of the national language of Montenegro, but the national language of Montenegro is still Serbian.
    Well, according to the new Constitution of Montenegro, which was ratified last October, the official language of the country is called “Montenegrin” (“crnogorski”). Serbian is explicitly recognized alongside Croatian, Bosnian, and Albanian as “being in official use” (i.e. a minority language). Of course, you can argue that the difference between Montenegrin and Serbian is minuscule, but then, it’s not that much smaller than between Serbian and Croatian or (especially) Bosnian.
    The problem is that whenever I want to write about things that hold for the whole linguistic area formerly called Serbo-Croatian, I find BCS as the most convenient designation, since it’s widely recognized and as politically neutral as possible. However, it seems like I’ll have to switch to BCSM, since omitting the “M” can now be construed as a strong political statement.

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